Back to the Start

The spiritual road I’ve traveled hasn’t always been the one I’ve expected. I’ve taken turns I didn’t plan to take and ended up on roads I didn’t know existed. There have been dead ends, detours, and more than a few flat tires. If you trace my steps (Family Circus style!), the resulting path would look like a dropped pot of overcooked spaghetti.

I’ve shared about this journey indirectly, avoiding specific details and electing to paint in broad brush strokes that a more diverse cast of readers could relate to. In continuing to reflect on that journey, however, I’ve realized that there might be value in a more concrete telling of the story. It’s not that there’s anything particularly unique or interesting about it. In fact, it’s pretty lame compared to others. But as a former pastor and a person with a public faith, it’s hard to shake the thought that I owe some sort of explanation to those who know me and those whose faith has been shaped in part by my own.

Moving forward, I don’t want to be defined by my “deconstruction.” I don’t want my experience of spiritual evolution to overshadow the larger picture of who I am as a human being. But I’ve realized that maybe I need to tell that story in order to move on from it. Even if it’s only a therapeutic exercise for my own benefit.

In a series of upcoming reflections – of which this is the first – I’m hoping to identify and explain a few of the defining points at which my spiritual journey has departed from the evangelicalism I’ve spent the vast majority of my life thoroughly immersed in. I’m not trying to persuade anyone to follow me. I just want to recount how I got here. So if you don’t care about this stuff, then ignore it. It’s evangelical inside baseball, and it’s not for everyone. But for those who are curious how faith evolves or who need to know that they’re not alone in their own doubts and questions, then read on. The convoluted trail I’ve been stumbling along is wide enough for two.

Since my earliest days, evangelical Christianity has been an integral part of my life: sword drills, daily “devos,” Patch the Pirate cassettes, VBS games, fill-in-the-blank sermon outlines, youth lock-ins, See You at the Pole gatherings, CCM magazine subscriptions, highly questionable ham salads at the pitch-in lunch for visiting missionaries in the fellowship hall. And although many people have traumatic experiences in environments such as that, I can honestly say that I didn’t. Sure, there were bumps along the way – like being disparaged for attending a public school or being indoctrinated with right-wing political propaganda. But it’s hard to hold much animosity toward the structures that surrounded me as a young person. I was loved. I was nurtured. And even though they weren’t perfect, the people who shaped my spirituality were mostly honest, good-natured people who simply wanted me to love God and go to heaven.

The problem, though, was that there could be no heaven in that Christian context without unequivocal, rock-solid certainty. There was no room for “maybe” or “probably.” You were either saved or you weren’t, and if you were, no further questions needed to be asked. We could hardly be told a Bible story in Sunday school class without our childhood anxieties being activated by the haunting question, “If you died tonight, do you know that you would go to heaven?” And if that didn’t get a few kids saved before their parents came to pick them up, then the certainty factor could easily be amplified even more: “Do you know that you know that you know that you know?”

This commitment to certainty enabled an attitude of confidence and superiority that pervaded all aspects of our faith. We knew who God was, and we knew what God required of us. We Baptists were right; those atheists and Muslims and Catholics and Presbyterians and liberal Baptists were wrong. That’s just how it was. Anyone starting down the path toward mystery, inquiry, and imagination would quickly find it gated, barricaded, and locked. Access denied.

For the first two decades of my life, this system worked for me. I remained secure in my faith. Even as it grew in depth and complexity, my overall understanding of God remained fairly static. This isn’t to say that there were never questions or doubts; there certainly were. But I fought them back and pressed them down, managing to stay safely within the approved lane lines that had been set down for me.

Ironically, it wasn’t until I became a seminary student that the first significant shift took place. At the time, I didn’t appreciate the importance of what happened; it seemed too subtle (and too nerdy) to be of much enduring existential value. But I’m able to see now that it provided the first major crack in the wall of certainty that I had been happily hiding behind.

My seminary experience was not one marked by openness and theological diversity. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons I was there in the first place; I chose it precisely because it was an institution narrowly rooted in the conservative neo-Calvinism to which I was a zealous adherent. But there was one significant point along the way where I encountered a green light, an open invitation to explore outside the boundaries of orthodoxy as I knew it. For a research paper in one of my theology classes, I was invited to consider the nature of creation and the age of the earth. Had our vast cosmic home been created a mere 6,000 years ago, its formation taking place over the course of six literal, 24-hour days? Or was it possible to read the Bible in such a way that allowed for a more scientifically tenable point of view?

Now, to anyone who doesn’t have evangelical roots, these questions may not seem like a big deal. But to someone who grew up in the orbit of Ken Ham and creationism’s scorn for all things “millions and billions” (if you know, you know), merely asking them felt like a Luciferian revolt.

Yet ask the questions I did. Taking up the subject for my theology paper, I was determined to follow the evidence as well as I could. I researched the various positions, I studied Genesis 1 and 2 earnestly, and I slowly began to realize that the text provided a surprisingly generous space to diverge from what I had been taught in Sunday school.

The finer points of the theological arguments need not be rehearsed right now. (If you want a little insight into that, subscribe to my free newsletter!) But in short, I came to see the days of Genesis 1 as a poetic structure, not a scientific one. And since poetry operates in a world of figurative language, symbolism, metaphor, and all sorts of other non-literal realities, there’s very little reason to view the “days” of creation as precise timestamps marking the chronological beginning and end of certain consecutive actions. It’s much more reasonable to read them as literary devices, providing a cognitive framework for the theological concepts its author was trying to convey. 

The consequence? I became comfortable admitting that the Bible has no intention of telling us how old the universe is or whether or not we’re the descendants of Neanderthals. Rather, its primary concern is to establish a compelling (and literary!) case for God’s creative autonomy. Whenever that might have happened. However that might have happened. 

This departure from what I had been taught in my youth now feels almost trivial from where I stand, given all the theological shifts I have made in the time since then. But in light of my starting point, this development was nothing short of momentous. I had shirked the sacred call to certainty. I had admitted Scripture’s limitations. I had challenged the familiar maxim, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” 

Perhaps hindsight has given me a more dramatic angle from which to see these events, but my reconsideration of the Bible’s first few chapters carried me across a line where I could no longer feel fully “at home” in my native religious habitat. I had begun the process of alienating myself. As a new youth pastor a few years later, this realization hit home as I came to terms with the dismay of certain parents after I had offered my thoughts about creation to their teenage children. “You don’t even believe the Bible?!” they asked in horror.

Deep down, however, I knew that it wasn’t a sense of dishonor or disregard for Scripture that led me to read it differently. Instead, it was precisely because I did value what it was and what it said that I was willing to let it speak on its own terms. I had reached this conclusion by studying the text, not ignoring it.

The younger version of myself would have imagined that the first step in deconstruction (even though I didn’t know that word at the time) was abandoning church, rejecting the Bible, caving to the pressures of the world, or indulging in some heinous sin. But what if the first step in deconstruction was hunching over an open Bible and a stack of theology books in the seminary library? 

All of this happened at a time when I was more confident and assured than ever. I had weathered four years of studying philosophy in a secular university that many had warned me would sabotage my faith. I had a clear sense of being called into full-time ministry. I had married a person whose evangelical pedigree was as robust as my own. And in the midst of all this, it was, of all things, a safely conservative theology class that started the process of unraveling the certainty my tradition had handed down to me.

The enduring legacy of this first major shift in my faith was that it opened a door for me to read the Bible in an entirely new way, casting healthy doubt on many of the assumptions I had taken for granted. Rather than seeing Scripture as a textbook, I started to see it as a collection of diverse voices, speaking in a number of diverse styles, perfectly content to leave some of our most pressing modern questions unanswered. I let go of needing the Bible to be my comprehensive answer book, and I (started to) let it be what it was.

As time would go on, this would prove to be the decisive factor in my faith taking on a new shape. Reading the Bible honestly would lead me to read the Bible differently. Taking it out of my own prefabricated theological box would give it the space to breathe and speak on its own.

Granted, we’re only talking about a meager two chapters at this point in the timeline. A whopping 1,187 remained, waiting to be likewise liberated. But sometimes that’s all we need. Just a tiny change in perspective. Just a miniscule crack in the door.

It was just a single step at the beginning of a long journey. But it was a single step in a direction that I didn’t know I could go.

Next up in this deconstruction series: The 2016 election and the evangelical love affair with Donald Trump.

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